One thing, dearly beloved, one thing above all that I must share in order that anything makes sense. How other people are with their families, I am with books and booksellers.
Not just the job, the job is great, but it’s a job and often I don’t understand it; it’s an occupational hazard that the more successful you are, the less intuitive as a bookseller you gradually become because your biggest fear becomes not that you will never lay hands upon the book and pass it on as a more worthy item, but that you will mess up the accounting and the numbers won’t work. Business is what kills you, smothering the light of the things you deal in until your only recourse is to rather deride untrammelled enthusiasm as slightly naive, whilst you deal with the proper grown up business of making sure the columns balance.
There are notable exceptions; booksellers you can still get a smile out of simply by pointing out a specific book they have a long history with, or engage in an hour long conversations over the idiosyncrasies of an item that might only be worth $100 but is priceless to them for some private, arcane reason.
In the case of one bookseller, if I show him anything, no matter whether its value be $90 or $90,000 and it elicits the response “Brutally cool.” then I’m doing Jonathan right.
In the main though, the true evangelism of the book trade, the alchemical process by which a lump of base rag pulp and leather is transformed into an item that the purchaser would not exchange for the moon, is not carried out by the man or woman whose name is over the door, but by the people who work for them.
So my look at the New York Book Fair week begins with a very sincere thank you to the crazy, often very young, smart and undeniably dedicated people that work for the Faces; they don’t get paid much, they work very long hours and you can frequently find them, male or female, crying in a corner for a couple of minutes before getting up and getting back to whatever mammoth task they’ve been given that needed to be done 30 seconds ago and that in any other trade would be done by a team of six. Apparently that’s how you find out whether or not someone loves their job; when it visibly hurts them and they keep showing up.
Apart from anything else this probably means I need to employ someone luminous before my own light goes even dimmer.
In my own personal case heartfelt thanks would be due to Janine Veazue, who manned my booth at my very first independent US fair and without whom something that was already difficult would have been way harder.
So, New York; naked city of a thousand stories etc. I love the place, come the middle of April the chunk of Manhattan from East 64th up to 84th contains literally 95% of everything I love in the world, the people I would gladly walk into traffic for, and is the annual event horizon for the trade that I have been working in for 20 years.
This year is the end of my first as a solo bookseller under my own name, it has been distinguished by some giddy successes, many crippling losses, and more oscillation between despair and renewed hope than is experienced by someone hearing a repeated rumour that Firefly is coming back.
You’ve got three fairs, on top of the Grolier exhibitions and the rest of it. The Emerald City of the whole thing is the Armory show; The New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Over 200 of the world’s most prominent dealers bearing with them every form of treasure from books, through maps, prints, manuscripts and a blizzard of delicious ephemera. It’s a huge deal; Paris has panache and dignity, London Olympia has a certain Neverwhere complexity lacking elsewhere; you never know when it has finished producing secret treasures from its many pockets, the West Coast has, well…the West Coast; a languid, sunglasses indoors, Lana del Rey, smooth, knowing, cruise of creativity.
New York is motherf***ing New York; a head down, chin tucked, bare knuckle fistfight of a book fair that every year leaves a couple more hats on the ground. From a bookseller standpoint it’s brutal, from its genteel champagne opening gala on the Thursday to the frenzied get out of Dodge pack up on Sunday evening. We like to think we’re smart, really we just carry smart things with us, and the Virgin Atlantic lounge at JFK on the last night looks like a bunch of shell-shocked people waiting for the last chopper out of Saigon.
Those books though.
That’s the reason that from the minute I walk through the doors on Thursday clutching my begged ticket (thanks B&B Rare Books, and Lux Mentis!) I’m a giddy mess of butterflies. The first thing I see is the outrageous illuminated manuscript orgy taking place at Phillip J. Pirages, off to my right is the achingly gorgeous expanse of Maggs Brothers with their all black stand and their bloody Cicero bound in antiphonal vellum and their inscribed Virginia Woolf malarkey. John Windle rocked up with William Blake under his arm, Kelmscott brought W.B. Yeats. My mates at Lux Mentis brought a kaleidoscopic array of weirdness and sedition from dangerous women, an aggressive pile of punk, the Gisela Amati vaudeville archive to an early 19th century travelling toilet in the form of a book (Ian Kahn thinks military, I think obnoxious Grand Tour gap year libertine). Lux Mentis also brought Kim Schwenk, for which we are all sincerely grateful.
Apparently Biblioctopus had a full run of the Sherlock Holmes stories in their original Strand Magazine issues, but I didn’t get to lay hands on it because of the inexorable maelstrom of people making their way to Heather O’Donnell’s (Honey & Wax Books) very first Armory Fair booth. She didn’t disappoint; in fact her stand was a triple share between Honey & Wax, Simon Beattie, and Justin Croft; which is a lineup of such mind-searing ability it’s a wonder the rest of us weren’t just walking up and rubbing them for luck. I actually did, which apparently I am NOT allowed to do again…sorry Simon. Heather showed up with a promotional poster for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, consummate professionalism and a fair invite that pointed out her stand was closest to the bar…A smile and a gun, indeed.
Simon brought a very rare first Russian edition of Byron’s Manfred, which I never got to see, amongst all the rest of his stock which I also couldn’t get near, because it was amazing. Justin Croft, who is the kind of person you might get reincarnated as if you live a really good previous life, turned up with a gorgeous sheet of uncut 18th century playing cards and a 17th century heraldic manuscript with seven silver clasps which had elicited no small amount of attention pre-fair.
Alongside this glittering collection you have the long list of booksellers who constitute something that hovers between my favourite people and a voluntary support group: people like Josh, Sunday and Julie of B&B Rare Books, who not only ensured that everyone got fed during setup this year but also provide a safe haven for anyone who fancies a drink and a chat, it was at their pre-fair reception that this happened:
Then there’s Lauren Avirom of Sanctuary Books, without whom a decent book fair is incomplete; Bruce McKittrick’s early modern wonders (which sounds like a supergroup); and Brian Cassidy, who was exhibiting the Besancourt watch factory samples album…hundreds of gorgeous French enamelled watch-faces in an enormous velvet lined binder which is the kind of thing that makes me absolutely certain that money is wasted on the wealthy and should be given to me so that I can own things like that.
It has to be mentioned that gathering stock of this quality in the tenuous and changeable environment of the modern book selling world takes guts. There’s lots of times when you think you have to sell that thing that you were counting on to stand out at the fair, often it can be the one cool book that people go away remembering…lots of the smaller dealers whom you encounter at these fairs will have been living off ramen and adrenaline in an effort to get there; and the items they display are the crystallisation of hope and the evidence of going without. Nobody sells books because it’s easy money.
Buttressing all this shenanigans quietly you have some of the keystone players of the modern book world, two in particular; Tom Congalton of Between The Covers, and Lorne Bair of Lorne Bair Rare Books, are directly responsible for me being an independent bookseller, without their support and encouragement I wouldn’t have been able to manage to get even this far and I will always be tremendously grateful. Also if you visit Lorne’s booth you get to hang out with Helene Golay and Amir Naghib, which is basically just a gift that keeps on giving.
Part 2, dealing with what we rather floridly refer to as The Shadow Fairs, will follow.